The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

by James Boswell

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"If You Were To Make Little Fishes Talk, They Would Talk Like WHALES"

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Context: In the section of The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. for 1773, Boswell recalls that Dr. Johnson said that Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) "should not be for ever attempting to shine in conversation: he has not temper for it, he is so much mortified when he fails." Boswell recounts, however, that Goldsmith often came out well in little conversation bouts with Dr. Johnson. On one occasion when they were talking of fables, Goldsmith mentioned the simplicity of their composition and went on to say that the animals in them seldom talked in character.

. . . "For instance, (said he,) the fable of the little fishes, who saw birds fly over their heads, and envying them, petitioned Jupiter to be changed into birds. The skill (continued he,) consists in making them talk like little fishes." While he indulged himself in this fanciful reverie, he observed Johnson shaking his sides, and laughing. Upon which he smartly proceeded, "Why, Dr. Johnson, this is not so easy as you seem to think; for if you were to make little fishes talk, they would talk likes WHALES."

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